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Joe Biden considers appointing a White House tsar for Asia

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Joe Biden is considering appointing a White House Asia tsar, signalling the rising importance of the region as the US president-elect prepares to tackle a wide range of challenges from China.

Five people familiar with the debate inside the Biden transition team said he was weighing the option to create the role in the National Security Council. Establishing the position would underscore how the region has become even more critical since the Obama administration’s “Asia pivot”.

“The president-elect has repeatedly made clear the Asia-Pacific region is one of tremendous opportunity, but also one where our interests and values face increasing challenges,” said one Biden transition team official.

The official added that the new administration would install that “right people and structures” to promote US interests and values alongside allies.

The tsar role is one of several ideas being considered by Jake Sullivan, the incoming national security adviser. Any move would reflect how US-China relations have become more complicated and tense during the presidency of Donald Trump and since Mr Biden left his position as vice-president four years ago. It would also highlight the challenges Washington and its allies face dealing with an increasing assertive China.

Mr Biden will face a range of sensitive issues, ranging from Chinese human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region to Beijing’s efforts to clamp down on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. Those challenges come against the backdrop of a growing bipartisan consensus on Capitol Hill that the president-elect must take a tougher stance on China.

Mr Biden will also face a host of trade and economic issues, and must decide how aggressively to take on Chinese companies that pose national security concerns.

Before the US election, the Biden campaign solicited ideas from a range of Asia experts that included a proposal to create a China tsar whose role would span the US government. But several people familiar with the idea said it had failed to gain traction. Some advisers argued that it would help China by giving Beijing a high-profile person to focus its pressure on.

A person familiar with the discussions over the new role stressed that a decision had not been taken. “There have been a number of structural proposals floated, but the team has not made any decisions,” the person said.

One possible permutation would involve naming three senior NSC directors to manage three geographic portfolios under a tsar. One would oversee China, the second would manage India and the third would focus on Japan, South Korea, Australia and other US allies in the Asia-Pacific.

“Elevating the importance of Asia will be a very positive signal to the region, and not necessarily bad for Europe given how important China has become in the transatlantic dialogue,” said one Asia expert. “But the real credibility test for allies like Japan will be whether the premise is working with Asia to deal with China, or just elevating China within the White House. My guess would be it’s the former.”

Jeff Prescott, a Biden transition official who is expected to be named to a top Asia job and is a contender for proposed tsar position, told the Financial Times in October that Mr Biden would rebuild US alliances, partly in an effort to work with other countries to deal with China.

Some experts argue that appointing a tsar would send a positive signal to traditional US partners that have been frustrated as Mr Trump undermined the country’s alliances. Mr Biden has named John Kerry, a former secretary of state, as his climate tsar, in an effort to send a message about his commitment to tackling climate.

But others cautioned there was a danger it would create more bureaucracy and result in more egos competing for a seat at the decision table.

A former national security official said it could create “one more stop on the inter-agency bus route” that would slow decisions. Another former official said choosing someone with stature could accelerate decision making, but also warned about the potential to add more red tape.

Mr Biden is working towards building out his security team after naming Mr Sullivan as national security adviser and Antony Blinken as secretary of state. He is expected to name Ely Ratner, his former deputy national security adviser and China hawk, to a senior role. Kelly Magsamen, a former Pentagon and NSC official, is also expected to get a prominent Asia job.

Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter





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Ben Okri: rediscovering a 4,000-year-old poem

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When the world began to close down 17 months ago, I was filled with a sense of foreboding about what would befall the life of the spirit, and wrote a heartfelt appeal in this paper urging the world not to forget the arts. I maintained that art at its best reveals to us the fullness of what it means to be human.

At the time I feared the lights would go out all over the world and all forms of culture would sink under the assault of the pandemic. But it soon turned out that we could not live without art and culture after all. It was just that art had to find new ways to reach us, new ways to exist, and artists had to find new ways of making art. For many artists, their homes became their studios. Zoom replaced travel, and virtuality replaced intimacy.

But there is something matchless about live theatre. Nothing quite comes close to the mysterious vitality of living actors and an audience throbbing with anticipation and immersed in the entanglements of a story. And so this weekend something remarkable will happen. After a year and a half of not practising their art in person, a group of actors will be staging at the Young Vic my new play, Changing Destiny. It is set in ancient Egypt and is based on a nearly 4,000-year-old poem called “The Tale of Sinuhe”.

Ashley Zhangazha in rehearsal for Ben Okri’s ‘Changing Destiny’ © Marc Brenner

The play began its life before lockdown, but the writing of it and the intricacies of production took place during it. Most of the process happened on Zoom. Staff had to work from home and the theatre struggled for funding. A curious early obstacle was the shortage of black male actors, who were unprecedentedly in such high demand. Fortunately, we found the excellent Ashley Zhangazha, who had played Ike Turner in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical. He plays alongside the wonderful Joan Iyiola, a veteran of the Young Vic.

The play began as a classic three-act play in the Greek tradition, then was compressed into a two-hander. We wanted this play, based on one of the most popular poems in the ancient world, to be as close as possible to the oldest form of storytelling on the stage, where the play is made up as much from the imagination of the audience as from the suggestive performance of the actors. We wanted an ancient form of theatre, the campfire theatre, alongside the most modern of technological innovations.

But producing a play during lockdown proved quite a challenge. And it took nerves of steel from the intrepid artistic director of the Young Vic, Kwame Kwei-Armah, to manage all the contingencies and devise the most Covid-free environment for the actors to rehearse and the theatre to function. Going into rehearsal required a rigorous daily health check. The rehearsal area was completely sealed off.

The pressure on the actors was enormous. There are only two of them, one male, the other female, playing 100 roles. They rotate the playing of the central role of Sinuhe. This makes it a gender-transcendent performance. To experience the play fully, you have to see it twice, to see what happens when Sinuhe is a man and then a woman.


Joan Iyiola in rehearsals for ‘Changing Destiny’ © Marc Brenner

I first became interested in “The Tale of Sinuhe” as part of my abiding curiosity about the ancient Egyptian civilisation and its relationship to Africa. It seems people have managed to mentally separate Egypt from the rest of the continent. Now, perhaps, is the time for Egypt to be dealt with as part of the broken history of the continent.

But my interest in ancient Egypt is also mythical and spiritual. The poem of Sinuhe is a literary text but also belongs to the mural tradition of Egyptian art. The scribe who copied it had it painted in his tomb. It is a visual poem, a performance to death and immortality.

A casual encounter with Kwei-Armah, who is himself a fastidious playwright, at an event celebrating Nelson Mandela through his prison letters, gave the second impetus for the writing of the play. We were surprised at our mutual fascination for this now little-known Egyptian poem.

After the final draft was accepted, Kwame decided early that he wanted Changing Destiny to be the first play the Young Vic performs as it comes out of lockdown, a play that matches the strangeness of emerging from the long period of isolation with the magic and strangeness of an ancient world. But it has proved as difficult coming out of lockdown as going into it. The production suffered cancellations and postponements and has been a lesson in bringing back theatre in historic times.

From the beginning, though, we were not interested in theatricalising the poem, but in finding an authentic political and ritual drama from it. No play about ancient times can be written that is not a play about today. We can only understand the past through the present. It is the only portal we have. Conversely, we can only understand the present through the past.

The Sinuhe poem reveals profound political tensions in ancient Egypt. It is an indirect account of the assassination of Pharaoh Amenemhat I; and of Sinuhe, implicated in the plot, who had to flee to foreign lands. Contained in the poem are archetypes that have haunted the human imagination.

Prefigured within it are preoccupations with home and exile, with identity, the unknowability of human motives, and those eternal issues of freedom. Right at the heart of the poem is the problem of power, of what to do when an autocratic regime is destroying the fabric of society. Hard as this is to believe, those pyramid-makers had their fingers on the pulse of things that would consume us 4,000 years later.

Kwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director of the Young Vic and director of ‘Changing Destiny’ © Marc Brenner

Ancient Egypt has been marginalised in the story of literature. That ought to change. The tendency in the west has been to begin with the Greeks as if nothing much had been written before. But the writing of Herodotus and Plutarch bears witness to the Egyptian roots of Greek culture, to the notion that the Greeks got some of their gods from Egypt. There is even a fruitful tradition that contends that the ancient Egyptian mystery plays were the real progenitors of Greek theatre.

There are hints in the Greek myths of importations from other cultures. Dionysus has an Asiatic tinge. Many cultures inform the pantheon of Greek gods. In order to overcome enduring Eurocentric tendencies, we need to go back to the ancients to see how myths and mysteries spread from one centre to another. It should cure us of the notion that the roots of western civilisation come from only one place.

The migration of gods and cults and peoples is hard-wired into the story of civilisation itself. “The Tale of Sinuhe”, for this reason, ought to induce in us cultural humility and a sense of wonder. It ought to be widely taught in schools and be as well known as Homer’s Odyssey or The Arabian Nights.

Writing Changing Destiny, I wanted to bathe the audience in this eternal stream. I wanted to divert some of its waters into these divisive times. Whether it be the cruel treatment of migrants at American borders, or the European seas alive with the ghosts of migrants who tried to make it across, or the new immigration bill recently published by the British government, this ancient Egyptian poem, now made into a play, hints that the issue of immigration demands a new way to look at the human story and the human spirit. Not one that demonises out of fear, but one whose understanding comes from the long perspective about the mystery of the human estate.

To August 21, youngvic.org

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China reaffirms plans to beef up oversight of foreign listings

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Chinese politics & policy updates

Beijing reiterated its intention to strengthen oversight of overseas listings on Friday, capping a volatile week during which contradictory policy signals rocked the share prices of Chinese companies.

At its mid-year meeting, the Chinese Communist party’s politburo stated its determination to “improve” the regulatory framework for companies listing shares overseas. It was the first time the politburo, comprised of the party’s top 25 officials, had specifically addressed the issue.

Chinese regulators have been angered by Didi Chuxing’s decision to press ahead with a $4.4bn initial public offering in New York last month, despite their concerns about the ride-hailing group’s data security practices.

Senior party and government officials have subsequently vowed stricter oversight of overseas listings, which will now require clearance from the country’s internet regulator. Didi’s shares have plunged as other Chinese companies cancelled or delayed plans to list outside of the country.

Investor confidence in Chinese tech companies was further dented on Monday when Beijing revealed draconian new rules for the country’s booming private education sector. The share prices of New York-listed tutoring companies collapsed, after which a senior securities regulator sought to reassure financial executives that Beijing was not seeking to ‘“decouple” Chinese companies from US and other overseas markets.

The comments by Fang Xinghai, vice-chair of the China Securities Regulatory Commission, on Wednesday helped stop a broader sell-off of Chinese shares. But they were not enough to prevent a more than 20 per cent monthly decline in US-listed Chinese tech companies.

Chinese officials have shown no sign of reining in their crackdown of the country’s largest tech groups for alleged violations of monopoly and data security laws.

Separately, China’s transportation ministry on Friday signalled an intensification of the measures against Didi and other ride-hailing groups. It said in a statement that companies in the sector must improve compliance over network and data security management to better protect customers’ personal data. Stronger supervision of antitrust practices, as well as improved rights of workers in the sector, was also needed, it said.

The statement did not name specific companies but noted that the government’s transport sector oversight is being directed by President Xi Jinping.

The Chinese government is conscious that the campaigns against tech and education companies could dent already fragile private sector confidence as the government tries to boost slowing economic growth.

Liu He, a Chinese vice-premier and the country’s top economic and financial official, sought to reassure representatives of small and medium-sized enterprises on July 27, acknowledging that they were the “main source” of employment. “The Chinese economy will do well only if SMEs do well,” he added.

While China has rebounded strongly from the Covid-19 pandemic, officials have been concerned by slowing infrastructure investment — an essential driver of the world’s second-largest economy. The politburo suggested it would encourage more fiscal spending and local government debt issuance to accelerate economic growth.

The Chinese government has also struggled to contain a new outbreak of Covid-19’s Delta variant, which has spread across the country from an airport in eastern China.

Additional reporting by Edward White in Seoul



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More questions than answers in a Hong Kong courtroom

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Hong Kong politics updates

Leaving Hong Kong’s district court last week, I saw a group of pro-Beijing people waving the Chinese national flag. They had a handwritten banner saying: “Injustice waiting to be undone.”

In July 2019, more than 100 white T-shirt-clad men armed with metal rods indiscriminately attacked pro-democracy protesters, journalists and commuters in Yuen Long station. The incident shocked Hong Kongers to their core.

Last week, seven of the so-called “white shirts” attackers were sentenced to between three and a half and seven years for rioting and wounding. Friends and families of the victims sat in the public gallery. They were joined by supporters of the white-clad men. An old man carrying the red flag into the public gallery cried, “This is unjust. We have to report the case to President Xi Jinping.”

But for many people, the Yuen Long incident was one of the darkest moments during the 2019 Hong Kong anti-government protests.

I was on the streets that day, covering the protesters when they defaced Beijing’s main office in the territory — the first time they had targeted an important symbol of the national government. As the police tear-gassed the area, a protester told me to go to Yuen Long. It was the first I had heard of the incident.

Police officers arrived at the scene late, despite numerous emergency calls, and a nearby police station shut its gate. The alleged police inaction, both on that day and afterwards, has fuelled public distrust of law enforcement.

“Such unscrupulous mass lynching has caused great panic among the citizens and the court must impose a deterrent sentence on the perpetrator,” said Judge Eddie Yip as he read out his judgment. “The passengers’ defences were only a few umbrellas and a few brave young bodies standing at the front,” Judge Yip added.

However, to the victims, the public and even the defendants, the tough sentences have not resolved public discontent, and many questions remain unanswered. For example, despite arresting 63 people related to the case, no mastermind behind the attack has been identified and only eight white-shirts have been brought to court. By contrast, police have arrested thousands of pro-democracy activists, including alleged leaders such as Jimmy Lai and Joshua Wong.

A victim who tried to protect a journalist, and who was hit in the mouth during the attack, told the FT: “If we can’t find out who directs this, who’s involved and bring them to the public, the court is not going to solve this, nor [be] able to help in solving this.”

The wife of Tang Wai-sum, who was sentenced to seven years for his part in the attack, organised a press conference against the “harsh” judgment. “My husband is only an ordinary villager, a small-business owner,” she said. He was only there to “protect his home”.

Alex Yeung, a pro-Beijing YouTuber, sat next to Mrs Tang at the press conference. “The judge is ‘yellow’,” he said, pounding the table angrily. He was referring to the colour used by pro-democracy groups. “I hope the national security law and the independent commission against corruption will investigate this judge.”

The victim who was hit in the face, who was also a witness in the case, said: “both sides are asking for truth: the protesters want to know who directed this, the villagers [locals in Yuen Long] or pro-Beijing people are also making clips they say reflect the ‘truth’. So we need to have an institution to lay out the facts and find all the things behind [it].”

Attempts to find out the truth have been hindered. Bao Choy, a journalist who investigated police conduct during the attack, was convicted and fined for the criminal offence of making false statements.

At one point the police attempted to define the incident as a “mass fight” and “conflict” between “people with different political beliefs” instead of an attack. Seven other people, including former legislative councillor Lam Cheuk-ting, who was injured by the attackers, have been charged with participating in a riot. This trial has been adjourned to 2023.

One court may have made a decision about what happened at Yuen Long, but many people feel the truth is yet to be revealed.

nicolle.lui@ft.com



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